Architecture with urban agriculture: essential for any resilient city.
Urban agriculture is a trend many cities are experiencing. Spurred on by the drive for countries to be able to feed themselves, feed more people, import less and serve the increasing preference for food that’s local and seasonal, urban agriculture is having more than just a practical impact on built up areas. It’s changing the face of cityscapes as we know them. Part 1, The Architecture of Urban Agriculture.
Writer: Mark Hogan
Urban agriculture is not a new invention, but it has taken off in popularity in the past few years due to a combination of factors including advances in technology and a slowdown in real estate development due to economic recession. Architects have embraced the trend, with proposals for vertical farms and landscape urbanist plans for vast tracts of urban agriculture appearing in competition entries and student projects around the world. Looking at a variety of installed examples around the world shows that progress has been made and the reality of ubiquitous urban agriculture may be just around the corner.
In London, Capital Growth is a campaign to create 2,012 growing spaces in London by the end of 2012. One of the most innovative examples is FARM:shop in Dalson. Created by Something & Son LLP, “an eco-social design practice,” the enterprise seeks to develop a network of city residents growing their own productive crops and turning a profit doing so. They also intend to link farms in the countryside with cities, and to grow food commercially through their own network of FARMs and sell the produce through the FARM:shops. Their current location in Dalston produces agricultural products sold in the on-site cafe. There is an on-site aquaponic fish farm, rooftop chicken coops, and indoor allotments. By focusing on allowing individual farmers to turn a profit by providing a market, nearly all of London holds the possibility for cultivation as the critical mass of land area is provided by the accumulation of many tiny plots.
In some cases, architects have designed tiny plots into otherwise unused spaces in urban buildings from the beginning. David Baker and Partners Architects of San Francisco has used this approach on numerous high-density residential projects in California. The most notable example is on the roof of Curran House, a social housing project in the center of San Francisco’s gritty Tenderloin nighbourhood. Residents often must join a waiting list to obtain access to one of the rooftop container plots that were designed in collaboration with Andrea Cochran Landscape Architects.
Plant Chicago represents the opposite approach to urban farming, where the food production network thrives within one large building instead of being distributed throughout the city. Located in a vacant four story meatpacking plant in Chicago’s Back of Yards neighbourhood, the focus is on creating a zero energy incubator for urban agriculture. One third of the building is devoted to aquaponic growing systems with the rest of the building providing low-cost space for sustainable food businesses served by low-cost power and a shared licensed kitchen. By reusing a very durable existing building, the owners not only have saved money but have conserved the energy invested in constructing the building. Spurred by $1.5 million grant, The Plant will go off the grid via an anaerobic digestion and a combined heat and power system that will take waste from the building and surrounding food businesses to generate electricity and heat. While the sturdy brick exterior doesn’t look groundbreaking, The Plant is taking advantage of cutting-edge technology to economize food production and eliminate waste in the process, breaking new ground for systems thinking in architectural projects elsewhere.
Pasona 02 takes a similar approach to reusing obsolete space, but does it underneath the city of Tokyo. Located in a square kilometer of underground bank vault, this project seeks to address Japan’s food deficit and train youth in food production in a country where most farmers are elderly. A variety of crops, including rice, tomatoes, and flowers are grown under artificial light. Little attention has been paid to energy efficiency, but efficiency of production is a priority through use of high-tech, fertilizer-free systems.
The absence of architecture also provides a context for urban farming. In San Francisco, the Hayes Valley farm has appeared as a temporary installation on land formerly used as the entrance ramp to an elevated roadway. Slated for development prior to the recession, building plans went on hold and farmers moved in. Because of the limited investment needed to start an outdoor farm like this, little is at risk when the developers return in a few years as the market turns around. In Buffalo, New York long term economic decline has resulted in thousands of vacant buildings and parcels across the city. A variety of “silver bullet” architectural proposals have been made over the years in attempts to turn the city around, but small-scale farmers have begun the process on their own by farming the voids left where houses once stood and selling produce at local markets and to restaurants. The Massachusetts Avenue project has a aquaponic farm in a temporary building surrounded by outdoor planter boxes in the midst of a West Side neighbourhood. Projects like this take advantage of the opportunity afforded by economic and architectural decline and use temporary structures to keep investments low.
While urban agriculture has started out relatively small and has taken advantage of unused built and unbuilt niches in the urban environment, some researchers are thinking bigger. Dr. Dickson Despommier, a professor in Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia University in New York, is leading the push towards true vertical farming. He stresses the efficiencies inherent in indoor crop production and the lack of additional agricultural land available worldwide to meet population growth. His research appears on the website http://www.verticalfarm.com yet the site is noticeably short on the realities of financing these schemes.
In coming years, increased pressure on the world’s food supply and soaring land costs in cities worldwide will be competing forces to help determine the future of urban farms. In the meantime, enterprising gardeners and entrepreneurs in cities around the world will continue to experiment and perfect a variety of approaches. Urban agriculture at its current scale has more in common with the pop-up pavilion than it does with the Burj Khalifa, but with the amount of progress that is being made, it would not be surprising to see it scale up within the next decade.